Former WPIAL wrestlers embrace home-mat advantage at NCAAs
For Luke Pletcher, the stakes are higher than most.
A Latrobe graduate, Pletcher was one of the best WPIAL wrestlers in recent memory earlier this decade. But the three-time PIAA champion took his talents across the state line to the west.
Pletcher became an All-American at Ohio State, placing fourth in the NCAA championships last year in Cleveland.
This year, the NCAAs are at PPG Paints Arena. As one of a handful of wrestlers from local high schools in the NCAA championships, the location makes his appearance all the more noteworthy.
“Once you come to Ohio, they all think Ohio is (home to) the best wrestling,” Pletcher said, the smile evident in his voice. “So me and the coach, I give him some crap about PA being the best, the WPIAL being the best.”
Pletcher says he makes sure he has the ear of Buckeyes recruiting coordinator Anthony Ralph, who went to high school in Bedford, Ohio, to give him the names of some hidden gems in the WPIAL.
“We keep in touch with each other,” Pletcher said. “And we all think the WPIAL’s the best place in the country for wrestling.”
Pletcher isn’t the only one who feels that way. Even his coach — at Ohio’s flagship university, no less — carries a respect for Pennsylvania wrestling in general and the WPIAL in particular.
Three starters at Ohio State — one of the top teams in NCAA Division I — attended WPIAL high schools, including two at Latrobe (Pletcher and Ethan Smith, who moved to Maryland his junior year).
“You could be the 50th-best kid in the state there in the weight, and it’s a tough match because they are so good,” Ohio State coach Tom Ryan said.
Could the WPIAL wrestlers be more formidable with a kind of home-mat advantage?
“I would think so,” said Bucknell coach Dan Wirnsberger, whose team will have WPIAL-bred representatives in Zach Hartman (Belle Vernon) and Drew Phipps (Norwin) at the NCAA championships. “You’re going close to home where you’ve got a lot of family, friends, community people. There’s already a lot of eyes on the NCAA tournament, but even moreso out in Western PA, where it’s … the No. 1 wrestling region in the country, in my opinion, being around the sport for a long time and doing a lot of recruiting.”
Another former Latrobe standout, Virginia Tech’s Zack Zavatsky, is headed to the NCAA championships for the fourth time. This one is different, though, and not just because it’s his final college meet.
It was toward the end of last season when Zavatsky began to realize his final NCAAs would be in his home city.
“Going back home to Latrobe, everyone in the area that I grew up knowing, teachers, doctors, dentists, everyone, is trying to figure out how they can get a ticket to watch and support me,” Zavatsky said. “So it’s pretty cool. But tickets are definitely going to be difficult to come by. But it’s going to be awesome.”
Hartman, a freshman, spoke about an expected comfort level competing on such a big stage 30 miles from where he grew up. Same for Phipps, who relishes that many family and friends who otherwise wouldn’t get to see him at such an event now will.
Phipps said the brotherly bond between WPIAL wrestlers means he has athletes other than his teammates to pull for, too.
“I definitely keep in touch with a lot of guys that wrestled who were from other teams in the WPIAL,” Phipps said, “and I try to keep up with how they are doing. It is definitely special, and it’s a little more cool it being in our hometown.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .